The ProsenPeople

Leading by Example

Friday, October 19, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Stefanie Pervos Bregman, the editor of Living Jewishly, wrote about engaging 20- and 30- somethings in the Jewish world, Rabbi Jason Miller wrote about exploring commonalities between religions and Rivka Nehorai shared the truth about motherhood. Today we hear from Living Jewishly contributor Rachel Wright. These Living Jewishly contributors have been blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

As a Jewish lay leader who works in corporate America, my identity often shifts between my work world and the time I dedicate as a volunteer within the Jewish community. If you follow me on Twitter or are a friend of mine on Facebook, it truly looks like I only have one dimension.

My favorite remark I get is when acquaintances who may know me well enough to be friends on Facebook but not well enough to know what I do for a living, simply assume and certify as they ask: “You work for Federation, right?” Gathering this assumptionbecause I simply must—with each event and conference I promote and Jewish holiday I’ll be well-wishing to my network.

What a compliment, I always think. That just means to me that I am doing a good job in my role as a volunteer determined to get as much outreach and engagement as possible.

Truth is, my professional job which allows me to be so involved with community has little to do with my strong Jewish identity at all. Which means my work network couldn’t be any less affiliated.

My Jewish friends across the globe who pride themselves on involvement may relate. How many times have you had to explain that our “missions” to Israel, Ethiopia, Russia, Cuba, Greece or Poland, for example, are not the “missionary” experience our non-Jewish associates want to understand?

Recently, I was in Indianapolis at a national conference for the insurance industry, the field I work in. As much as I give to the Jewish world, I also give to the company allowing me the ability to do so. Driven to grow professionally, I work with people from all walks of life. While entertaining at this conference, a question at dinner literally threw me aback.

As the check was delivered– and after a few glasses of wine– one of the members of my dinner party asked a closing question: “Not to be offensive, as I am sure this doesn't apply, but does a Jew own your company?”

I sat a little unsettled. In my professional life, I don’t often discuss religion as it’s simply not appropriate. And, as a Detroit-based company, we are fairly diverse with people of many religious backgrounds working together in harmony. But, this question demanded a response.

As a professional in the corporate world who also happens to be Jewish, I knew the only thing I could do worse than be complacent was to laugh or agree with any remark that would potentially follow. This would be even worse than the most ignorant of comments. But, not wanting to be overly strong too early, I softly asked why.

“Because of the name of your company – EHIM. I was recently in Israel with my church, and learned of the Hebrew word Elohim. Is this a root from the origins of your company?”

I breathed easy. His only mistake was approach in the ask. If anything, I felt embarrassed I wasn’t ready to be proud to say not only do I work for a Jewish woman but I also am part of this people.

He simply needed an answer that would also teach him it wasn't offensive to ask someone if they were of Jewish descent if asked in the appropriate way.

In Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, I was proud to have one of the blogs I wrote for Jewish Federations of North America Young Leadership Cabinet be included. This blog described the journey I went on with an ex-boyfriend, exploring his conversion to Judaism from a very Christian upbringing. Back then, I sat on the sidelines, taking the stance that conversion was to be his private journey as I didn't want to define his sense and understanding of our very deep tradition and beliefs.

Nearly three years later and on the other side, I see things a bit differently. As someone who aspires to grow into the very important role as a Jewish leader, one of the lessons I must learn is that we are not simply leading the Jewish people to follow or help guide them to find their way. We are leading a worldwide community that may not share our religion or tradition – but can follow through understanding and a mutual respect we have for each other.

We don’t need to preach to those who don’t ask. But we need to always be true to who we are. That is the way we lead by example and the way we continue to evolve change throughout the world.

Rachel Wright is the Director of Business Development for EHIM, a Pharmacy Benefit Manager in Detroit. She is also the President-Elect for NextGen of the Detroit Federation of Metro Detroit. Additionally, Rachel serves as the Women's chair for Ritual and Judaica for JFNA Young Leadership Cabinet. She can be reached at wrightrachm@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @rach_is_wright.

The Truth About Motherhood

Thursday, October 18, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Stefanie Pervos Bregman, the editor of Living Jewishly, wrote about engaging 20- and 30- somethings in the Jewish world and Rabbi Jason Miller wrote about exploring commonalities between religions. Today we hear from Living Jewishly contributor Rivka Nehorai. Check back all week for more Living Jewishly posts for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

No one ever told me
that to get older is to get better
and so much more satisfying
in a "ha-yes?!" type of way

And I thought that I should embrace my youth and hold onto it for dear life
until the wheel passed.

No one ever warned me
that becoming a mom is that much cooler,
in which your level of control and insight, wisdom and laughter
expands beyond yourself and your own dreams
into this greater complex organism.

No one ever whispered
that pregnancy was wild,
squirmy little baby within,
no need for air, thank you very much, just squirming around.

I made that, I laugh smugly to myself. Cool! (With help from the One Above, etc)

And I wonder- Why all the secrets? Why all the hushhush? Why pretend that college life is the best, or young and free is the ideal?
It's not true, I tell you, it's a lie, a lie that's spreading across America.
I can assure you, I am much cooler now than I ever was then. With droplets of time for myself, a whole new mission, and a new direction and explosion in life.

Spread the word.

Rivka Nehorai is an artist/writer, currently situated in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Besides caring for her little girl, Tanya Ester Avigayil, she works on commission, creating impressionistic portraits. Her work can be found at Naftaliart.com. She contributed to Stefanie Pervos Bregman's book, Living Jewishly.

One Missing Yarmulke, Several New Friends

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Stefanie Pervos Bregman, the editor of Living Jewishly, wrote about engaging 20- and 30- somethings in the Jewish world. Today, we hear from one of Living Jewishly's contributors, Rabbi Jason Miller. Check back all week for more Living Jewishly posts for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

We tend to see the differences that separate us from other religious groups rather than the commonalities. That sounds so cliché, but it’s true.

When some Jews hear of an Islamic religious school, called a madrassa, they make assumptions about what might be taught there. They don’t take the time to even consider that the Arabic word madrassa is very closely related to the Hebrew word midrasha, a Jewish religious school.

And when some Jews see a Muslim man wearing a skullcap called a kufi, they make assumptions about his religious views, political sentiments, and opinions on a range of social issues. They tend to forget how similar the kufi is to our kippah, or yarmulke.

One day recently both of these similarities struck me. My plane landed at Chicago’s Midway Airport. It was an early morning flight and I felt like I had traveled back in time since I actually arrived at an earlier time in Chicago than when I had taken off in Detroit thanks to the one-hour time zone difference. During the flight, I fell into a deep sleep.

It wasn’t until I got into my rental car that I realized I wasn’t wearing my yarmulke, as I normally do. At some point during my “nap,” my yarmulke must have fallen off and was lost on the plane. I pulled over to the side of the rode and checked everywhere – pockets, carry-on suitcase, and briefcase. My yarmulke was nowhere to be found.

I was on my way to a small Illinois town south of Peoria to check out a large spice factory that was interested in kosher certification from my agency. I knew I couldn’t walk in there without a yarmulke on my head. I was on a tight schedule though and at a loss for what to do.

I called my wife back in Michigan who began researching if there were any synagogues between my current location and my destination in Pekin, Illinois. While she did that, I continued to drive and search the sides of the highway for any random Judaica store where I could purchase a replacement yarmulke. And that’s when it caught my eye.

Off the highway on what seemed to be a service road was a small mosque. Would that work, I wondered. After all, there’s really not much of a difference between the Muslim kufi and some of the larger yarmulkes that my sons wear to their Jewish school every day. Would a kufi be a better option for me than stopping at a gas station and buying a baseball cap? It was worth a shot.

I exited the highway and did a quick turnaround to try and find the mosque I had passed a few miles earlier. It would be my first time entering a mosque despite the fact that I live in Metro Detroit with its dense Muslim population and abundance of mosques. Alas, the doors of the mosque were locked and it was dark inside. I quickly Googled the address and called the phone number that was listed, but it just rang and rang. For no good reason, I knocked on the doors again and then left.

As I drove away from the mosque I spotted what looked like another mosque in the distance. Perhaps that was the administrative office I thought. Maybe they could sell me one of those Muslim skullcaps (I hadn’t yet learned the word kufi). It was worth a try. I turned down the next street and headed for the building with the star and crescent on the roof. I couldn’t find the street that led to a parking lot so I parked at an auto repair shop and walked across a field to the building.

The doors were locked but I could tell there were people inside. I rang a door bell and a very nice woman opened the door. I saw classrooms up and down the hallways and immediately determined that I had just entered a madrassa. Cute little children were in a large room singing songs and playing games. That was obviously the pre-school. Older children ran up the stairs to a second level of classrooms. I went up to the reception desk and explained my situation. Rather than giving some story about being curious about Islam and wanting a kufi, I explained that I was a rabbi who customarily wears a Jewish head covering and somehow lost it on my flight into Chicago. I asked if they could sell me a Muslim head covering.

She seemed confused by my request, but explained they had no store in the building and didn’t sell kufis. But just as I was about to head back to my rental car, the woman found another woman and shared my story. She told me to wait a moment and about five minutes later she returned with a large, black knitted kufi for me. I asked her how much it would cost and she insisted that it was free. I took out a ten-dollar bill and handed it to her as a donation. The idea that I had just made my first charitable gift to an Islamic school was not lost on me. With some trepidation I placed the kufi on my head and thanked the kind women as I left.

Just as I got back in the car and took a look at myself in the rear-view mirror my phone rang. It was my wife telling me that there was an Orthodox synagogue in Peoria. I told her I was wearing a Muslim kufi on my head and shared my story of the welcoming women at the madrassa.

I called the Orthodox synagogue which didn’t have a gift shop or any complimentary yarmulkes,but the woman on the phone referred me to the Reform congregation that shared a building and had a gift shop. When I called that number I got the recording telling me to call the husband-wife rabbis on their cell phone. I called and found myself talking with Rabbi Karen Bogard who told me that her husband Rabbi Daniel Bogard had dozens of yarmulkes and I could drive to their home to pick one out.

Rabbi Karen told me that she and her husband had just graduated from rabbinical school and begun to serve this small congregation in Peoria. We played the game of Jewish geography and learned we knew many people in common. After driving for another couple hours she called me back and directed me to a park close to their home where she would be with the couple’s newborn baby. I drove to the park, gave Rabbi Karen a hug, picked out a yarmulke and then began telling her the story of my visit to the Islamic school. I proudly showed her my new kufi.

While I wore the borrowed yarmulke to the visit at the spice factory, I still felt appreciative to the generous women at the madrassa who provided me with the kufi. It is a story I will continue to tell with pleasure. Losing a yarmulke led me on an adventure to a mosque, a madrassa and a neighborhood park where I met a new rabbinic colleague.

I keep that black kufi on the desk of my office and every once in a while I smile as I consider the similarities between Jews and Muslims. Perhaps, my kufi will serve as a reminder to others to seek out the connections with members of other religions and to explore what we share in common rather than what divides us.

Rabbi Jason Miller is an educator and entrepreneur. He contributed the opening chapter of Stefanie Pervos Bregman’s Living Jewishly and blogs at http://blog.rabbijason.com. He is the founder and director of Kosher Michigan, a kashrut certification agency. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.